"C" Stands For Gold!
By: Sid Witherington, III
Most people reading this article enjoy the hobby of metal detecting. Some of us detect for coins, some of us gold, and of course there are the relic hunters like me. I enjoy relic hunting because I have always been interested in history. In fact, I teach history, and I could not be happier than when I am hiking down some old, wagon-worn Civil War road, looking for that elusive, long-lost campground with its undisturbed wonders.
If you detect long enough, whether it be for coins, relics, jewelry, or gold, there is always that hope in the back of your mind- you pull up and stop your car at a potential site, put new batteries in your detector, and set out in search of that great signal alerting you to the find of a lifetime. For a relic hunter, it might be a rare Confederate state seal belt plate; for a gold hunter, a huge nugget; and of course for coinshooters, that old, rare coin.
I do not actively search for coins. My philosophy is that when I search for Civil War camps, I will find some coins and they will be old. My experience, however, has been that Civil War soldiers did not drop much money. I have, to date, found 85 Civil War belt plates, which exceeds the number of Civil War period coins I have found. Nevertheless, the coins I have recovered in campsites are old, and some of them are rare.
Of course, the pinnacle for most coinshooters is to find gold. Ask anyone who detects for coins, and he will tell you that gold coins are few and far between. People did not lose these valuable coins as much as the more common coins. Furthermore, everyone was supposed to turn them in 1933, to be melted down when the United States government went off the gold standard.
I have been fortunate enough to find two gold coins since 1989, when I started metal detecting. The first gold coin I found in September of 1991, and it was 1" deep in a Civil War camp in Germantown, Tennessee, two miles from my home. It was a $2.50 1842 gold piece, otherwise known as a quarter eagle. I was thrilled, since that is one of the basic questions that experienced detectorists ask of each other: Have you ever found a belt plate... a Confederate belt plate? A diamond ring? A gold coin? It is nice to be able to answer yes to all of these questions.
My coin find of a lifetime was made in November of 1998, in Collierville, Tennessee. The site was a huge gothic 1890s home of one of the founding fathers in the Mid-South. The house was vacant and in dilapidated condition, and a developer who had bought the land planned to tear down the historic building and put several businesses there. I knew this developer personally and years earlier had found a Civil War camp in his yard. I gave him what I found there, and he now allows me to search all his construction sites around the area.
As I said, I knew the house was from the 1890s, but I was not primarily looking for artifacts of that period. I am a Civil War relic hunter first, and this huge estate was in a prime Civil War area. I hunted this area dozens of times over the next few months as they tore down the house and graded off the property. My perseverance paid off, and I was rewarded with about 35 Civil War bullets, three of which were rare .50 caliber Colt Revolving Rifles, and seven buttons, a spur, iron knives, a silver ring, and coins from the 1890s. Little did I suspect that the best find was yet to come.
By November of 1998, I had moved on to other areas, and drove past this site many times as I headed to greener pastures. Then, early in the month, some of my friends began detecting at the house site I thought I had cleaned out. What's more, they started calling me to say that they had found some bullets and even a few buttons. Since I have always been a very competitive person, I hurried back to the site to check it more closely.
It was a beautiful autumn day, the graded ground around the old house was soft and made for easy digging. As I was walking over this area, I noticed signs of my friends' digging, and I wondered about the artifacts I had missed which were now in their collections. I took a few steps, and suddenly I got a great signal. I reached down, dug a plug out of the ground, and ran my detector over the target area. Finding nothing, I checked the plug. As I broke it apart, to my amazement I saw a coin about the size of a nickel. It had a bust of a lady on the front, and my initial thought was, "This is a "V" nickel. But as the sun reflected off it, I realized that it was not the right color. At that moment, it dawned on me: I had found a gold coin! I could read the date 1848 and "FIVE D.," but my eyes are not what they used to be, and I had to go to my car and get my reading glasses to read the mintmark on the back.
The mintmark was a "C." I'll admit that even though I have collected coins most of my life, I was not familiar with this mark. When I got home, I pulled out my trusty Red Book and discovered that the coin had been minted in Charlotte, North Carolina. I did some further research and found that the mint in Charlotte was authorized in 1835, and in 1838 struck its first coins from gold that had been found in the area. This mint continued to operate until October of 1861.
The coin is quite scarce, with only 1% reportedly still in existence today. Later, at the Memphis coin show, a dealer quoted me a price of over $1,000, and recently it has been listed at $1,600-1,800 in VF-XF condition. I may find a coin in the future that is more valuable than this one, but chances are I will not.
Whether I do or do not is not important. What matters is that I was privileged to make one of those finds that every person who picks up a metal detector dreams of. I will not sell it, but its history will be related to all my history classes... and anyone else who will listen!